Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

13 MAY, 2014

The Backfire Effect: The Psychology of Why We Have a Hard Time Changing Our Minds

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How the disconnect between information and insight explains our dangerous self-righteousness.

“Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind,” I wrote in reflecting on the 7 most important things I learned in 7 years of Brain Pickings. It’s a conundrum most of us grapple with — on the one hand, the awareness that personal growth means transcending our smaller selves as we reach for a more dimensional, intelligent, and enlightened understanding of the world, and on the other hand, the excruciating growing pains of evolving or completely abandoning our former, more inferior beliefs as we integrate new knowledge and insight into our comprehension of how life works. That discomfort, in fact, can be so intolerable that we often go to great lengths to disguise or deny our changing beliefs by paying less attention to information that contradicts our present convictions and more to that which confirms them. In other words, we fail the fifth tenet of Carl Sagan’s timelessly brilliant and necessary Baloney Detection Kit for critical thinking: “Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.”

That humbling human tendency is known as the backfire effect and is among the seventeen psychological phenomena David McRaney explores in You Are Now Less Dumb: How to Conquer Mob Mentality, How to Buy Happiness, and All the Other Ways to Outsmart Yourself (public library) — a fascinating and pleasantly uncomfortable-making look at why “self-delusion is as much a part of the human condition as fingers and toes,” and the follow-up to McRaney’s You Are Not So Smart, one of the best psychology books of 2011. McRaney writes of this cognitive bug:

Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do this instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. Just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you. Coming or going, you stick to your beliefs instead of questioning them. When someone tries to correct you, tries to dilute your misconceptions, it backfires and strengthens those misconceptions instead. Over time, the backfire effect makes you less skeptical of those things that allow you to continue seeing your beliefs and attitudes as true and proper.

But what makes this especially worrisome is that in the process of exerting effort on dealing with the cognitive dissonance produced by conflicting evidence, we actually end up building new memories and new neural connections that further strengthen our original convictions. This helps explain such gobsmacking statistics as the fact that, despite towering evidence proving otherwise, 40% of Americans don’t believe the world is more than 6,000 years old. The backfire effect, McRaney points out, is also the lifeblood of conspiracy theories. He cites the famous neurologist and conspiracy-debunker Steven Novella, who argues believers see contradictory evidence is as part of the conspiracy and dismiss lack of confirming evidence as part of the cover-up, thus only digging their heels deeper into their position the more counter-evidence they’re presented with.

Nicolaus Copernicus's simple yet revolutionary 1543 heliocentric model, which placed the sun rather than Earth at the center of the universe, contradicted the views of the Catholic Church. In 1633, Galileo was detained under house arrest for the remainder of his life for supporting Copernicus's model.

On the internet, a giant filter bubble of our existing beliefs, this can run even more rampant — we see such horrible strains of misinformation as climate change denial and antivaccination activism gather momentum by selectively seeking out “evidence” while dismissing the fact that every reputable scientist in the world disagrees with such beliefs. (In fact, the epidemic of misinformation has reached such height that we’re now facing a resurgence of once-eradicated diseases.)

McRaney points out that, despite Daniel Dennett’s rules for criticizing intelligently and arguing with kindness, this makes it nearly impossible to win an argument online:

When you start to pull out facts and figures, hyperlinks and quotes, you are actually making the opponent feel even surer of his position than before you started the debate. As he matches your fervor, the same thing happens in your skull. The backfire effect pushes both of you deeper into your original beliefs.

This also explains why Benjamin Franklin’s strategy for handling haters, which McRaney also explores in the book, is particularly effective, and reminds us that this fantastic 1866 guide to the art of conversation still holds true in its counsel: “In disputes upon moral or scientific points, ever let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.”

McRaney points out that the backfire effect is due in large part to our cognitive laziness — our minds simply prefer explanations that take less effort to process, and consolidating conflicting facts with our existing beliefs is enormously straining:

The more difficult it becomes to process a series of statements, the less credit you give them overall. During metacognition, the process of thinking about your own thinking, if you take a step back and notice that one way of looking at an argument is much easier than another, you will tend to prefer the easier way to process information and then leap to the conclusion that it is also more likely to be correct. In experiments where two facts were placed side by side, subjects tended to rate statements as more likely to be true when those statements were presented in simple, legible type than when printed in a weird font with a difficult-to-read color pattern. Similarly, a barrage of counterarguments taking up a full page seems to be less persuasive to a naysayer than a single, simple, powerful statement.

In 1968, shortly after the introduction of the groundbreaking oral contraceptive pill that would revolutionize reproductive rights for generations of women, the Roman Catholic Church declared that the pill distorted the nature and purpose of intercourse. (Public domain photograph via Nationaal Archief)

One particularly pernicious manifestation of this is how we react to critics versus supporters — the phenomenon wherein, as the popular saying goes, our minds become “teflon for positive and velcro for negative.” McRaney traces the crushing psychological effect of trolling — something that takes an active effort to fight — back to its evolutionary roots:

Have you ever noticed the peculiar tendency you have to let praise pass through you, but to feel crushed by criticism? A thousand positive remarks can slip by unnoticed, but one “you suck” can linger in your head for days. One hypothesis as to why this and the backfire effect happen is that you spend much more time considering information you disagree with than you do information you accept. Information that lines up with what you already believe passes through the mind like a vapor, but when you come across something that threatens your beliefs, something that conflicts with your preconceived notions of how the world works, you seize up and take notice. Some psychologists speculate there is an evolutionary explanation. Your ancestors paid more attention and spent more time thinking about negative stimuli than positive because bad things required a response. Those who failed to address negative stimuli failed to keep breathing.

This process is known as biased assimilation and is something neuroscientists have also demonstrated. McRaney cites the work of Kevin Dunbar, who put subjects in an fMRI and showed them information confirming their beliefs about a specific subject, which led brain areas associated with learning to light up. But when faced with contradictory information, those areas didn’t fire — instead, parts associated with thought suppression and effortful thinking lit up. In other words, simply presenting people with information does nothing in the way of helping them internalize it and change their beliefs accordingly.

So where does this leave us? Perhaps a little humbled by our own fallible humanity, and a little more motivated to use tools like Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit as vital weapons of self-defense against the aggressive self-righteousness of our own minds. After all, Daniel Dennett was right in more ways than one when he wrote, “The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them — especially not from yourself.”

The remainder of You Are Now Less Dumb is just as wonderfully, if uncomfortably, illuminating. Sample it further with the psychology of the Benjamin Franklin Effect, and treat yourself to McRaney’s excellent podcast, You Are Not So Smart, which will, of course, make you smarter.

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08 MAY, 2014

Visionary Vintage Children’s Book Celebrates Gender Equality, Ethnic Diversity, and Space Exploration

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“The blackness of space was dotted with stars.”

For all their immeasurable delight, children’s books also have a serious cultural responsibility — they capture young minds and plant in them the seeds that blossom into beliefs about what is socially acceptable, what is right and wrong, and what is possible. This weight of possibility is both a blessing and a burden, given the terrible track record children’s books have of celebrating diversity — both ethnically and in terms of gender norms. Only 31 percent of children’s books feature female heroines, and even those consistently purvey limiting gender expectations; of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, a mere 93 were about black people. The ones that fully embrace cultural diversity or empower girls are few and far between, to say nothing of those rare specimens that get girls excited about science.

One of the most heartening antidotes to this lamentable state of affairs comes from 1973. Four years after the historic moon landing, as the world was falling in love with space exploration, the education arm of the Xerox Corporation published Blast Off (public library) — an extraordinarily imaginative little book by two women writers, Linda C. Cain and Susan Rosenbaum, illustrated by the legendary duo Leo and Diane Dillon, best-known for illustrating the most popular edition of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.

It is a story of space flight, whose protagonist is not only a girl but a black girl — and not a girl who is being mansplained about the way of the world, but a girl who does the explaining herself.

“For as long as she could remember, Regina Williams wanted to become an astronaut,” the story begins. One day, as Regina is drawing a diagram of a rocket on the sidewalk by her house, two of her friends come by and inquire about the “funny-shaped thing.”

She explains that it’s a spaceship and shares her dream of flying on a real one someday:

I’ll zoom through the sky into space. I’ll find new worlds and maybe meet new people, and I’ll come back and be famous!

Her friends just laugh at her and walk away, which leaves Regina all the more determined to pursue her dream. She sets out to build her very own spaceship out of junk — a few boxes and an old trash can become her space capsule — as she wonders whether her dream of becoming an astronaut will ever come true.

The story continues and, being a children’s tale, has a happy ending — but at its heart is a proposition both bittersweet and truly visionary: It would be exactly a decade until Sally Ride became the first American woman in space, and nearly twenty years until Mae Jemison launched into the cosmos as the first African American astronaut.

Though long out of print and somewhat dated in its details, Blast Off endures as a heartening antidote to a culture that all too frequently contains and confines children’s dreams by selling them lesser visions of the possible, failing to cultivate in them the essential capacity to imagine immensities.

What might a contemporary version of this spirit look like? Perhaps the most heartening example today remains Carla Torres’s Larry and Friends.

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07 MAY, 2014

What the Science of “Sleep Paralysis” Reveals About How the Brain Works

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How a neurological nightmare illuminates the wondrous workings of the brain-body connection.

“In both writing and sleeping,” Stephen King wrote in his meditation on “creative sleep” and the art of wakeful dreaming, “we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum rational thinking of our daytime lives.” But while he was exploring the creative process from a metaphorical angle, he was inadvertently describing one of the greatest neurological nightmares that could befall us. Due to the sheer enormity of what happens in the brain while we sleep, there is also a sizable possibility that things would go wrong; when they do, things can get scary. And few sleep-related brain glitches can be scarier than what is known as “sleep paralysis” — the evil twin of lucid dreaming.

Four years after The Disappearing Spoon, his wonderful chronicle of crazy tales from the periodic table, science writer Sam Kean returns with The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery (public library) — a mind-bending tour of the mind, which Kean opens with a fascinating example, at once very personal and powerfully illustrative of the brain’s humbling complexity:

I can’t fall asleep on my back — or rather, I don’t dare to. In that position I often slip into a fugue state where my mind wakes up from a dream, but my body remains immobile. In this limbo I can still sense things around me: sunlight trickling through the curtains, passersby on the street below, the blanket tented on my upturned feet. But when I tell my body to yawn and stretch and get on with the day, nothing happens. I’ll recite the command again — Move, you — and the message echoes back, unheeded. I fight, I struggle, I strain to twiddle a toe or flex a nostril, and it does no good. It’s what being reincarnated as a statue would feel like. It’s the opposite of sleepwalking — it’s sleep paralysis.

The worst part is the panic. Being awake, my mind expects my lungs to take full, hearty breaths — to feel my throat expanding and my sternum rising a good six inches. But my body — still asleep, physiologically — takes mere sips of air. I feel I’m suffocating, bit by bit, and panic begins to smolder in my chest.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman from 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

But Kean, who is usually able to awaken his body within a few minutes, considers himself lucky — for others suffering from sleep paralysis, it can take hours of tortuous toiling. Some even slip into this half-asleep state in the middle of their day, while others have out-of-body experiences in the midst of trying to awaken their physical being. This is where Kean’s most fascinating point comes in — sleep paralysis may explain not only why a good deal of supernatural mythology came to be, but it also helps illustrate how the healthy brain works.

What causes sleep paralysis, Kean explains, is errant communication between the three main parts of the brain — the reptilian brain at the base, where functions like breathing and heart rate are controlled, the mammalian brain in the middle, which processes sensory input and includes the limbic system responsible for the formation of memories, and the outermost primate brain, which controls complex functions like movement, decision-making, and goal-setting. But while this trifecta of human consciousness generally hums along like the well-oiled machine that it is, every once in a while, communication between the different parts misfires — and then strange things happen. Sleep paralysis is just one such example. Kean writes:

Deep inside the reptile brain sits the pons, a hump in the brainstem an inch long. When we fall asleep, the pons initiates dreaming by sending signals through the mammal brain to the primate brain, where dreams stir to life. During dreams, the pons also dispatches a message to the spinal cord beneath it, which produces chemicals to make your muscles flaccid. This temporary paralysis prevents you from acting out nightmares by fleeing the bedroom or taking swings at werewolves.

While mostly protective, this immobility sometimes backfires. Sleeping on your back can collapse the airways in your throat and deprive the lungs of oxygen. This isn’t a huge deal during nonparalyzed, nondream sleep: the parts of the brain that monitor oxygen levels will rouse your body a little, halfway to waking, and you’ll snort, shift your head, or roll over. To get oxygen during dream sleep, though, the brain has to order the pons to stop paralyzing your muscles. And for whatever reason — a chemical imbalance, a frayed neural wire — the pons doesn’t always obey. So while the brain succeeds in rousing the mind a little, it can’t turn off the spigot for the paralysis chemicals, and the muscles remain limp.

Illustration from 'Neurocomic,' a graphic novel about how the brain works. Click image for more.

This produces a Rube Goldberg machine of neurological disaster: If this neither-here-nor-there state of wakeful immobility persists, the mind eventually becomes fully alert, realizes something has gone awry, and activates the amygdala — the brain’s alarm system, which amplifies fear. Suddenly, the brain is issuing a fight-or-flight command while the body is unable to perform either. Panic sets in. But this is where things get interesting — this anguishing state turns out to be a hotbed for the sort of hallucinatory experiences that people report when insisting they’ve had a brush with the supernatural. Kean explains:

At least with me, the actual dream I’m having stops as soon as my mind wakes up. Not so in some people: they never quite escape the dream state. They’re semialert to their surroundings, they’re paralyzed, and their brains keep conjuring up dream nonsense. Because the human mind is quite good at making spurious connections, they then link the characters in these hallucinations to their paralysis, as if one caused the other. It’s no wonder some people believe in demons and aliens: they actually see and feel them.

Zombies illustration from 'Monsters & Legends.' Click image for more.

Beyond its science-over-myth quality, however, sleep paralysis demonstrates another incredibly important fact: in the brain, as in life, everything is connected to everything else. An error as tiny as the delicate chemical balance deep in the reptilian brain could produce something as large and abstract as belief in the supernatural. In fact, Kean points out, sleep paralysis is but one of countless neurological glitches that illuminate the complexity and interconnectedness of the brain — for instance, damage to a tiny cluster of neurons can render a person unable to recognize fruits and vegetables but not other food or unable to read but still capable of writing.

What such neurological malfunctions reveal about the wondrous workings of the brain is what Kean goes on to explore in the rest of The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, a fascinating read in its totality. Complement it with Oliver Sacks’s Hallucinations, then revisit the science of why we have nightmares.

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30 APRIL, 2014

Perseverance, Self-Transcendence, and the “Slow Churn” of Creativity: A Conversation with Artist Rachel Sussman

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How deep time puts our fleeting human lives in perspective, what it takes to persist, and why any meaningful creative endeavor requires sacrifice.

At a recent event at the School of Visual Arts Theater in New York, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brooklyn-based artist, photographer, and Guggenheim Fellow Rachel Sussman about The Oldest Living Things in the World (public library) — her decade-long labor-of-love photographic masterpiece at the intersection of fine art, science, and philosophy highlighting thirty humbling organisms over 2,000 years of age, which I’ve covered at length previously. In our conversation, we explore how deep time helps make sense of our fleeting human lives, what the role of the “slow churn” of ideation is in the creative process, and why any meaningful creative endeavor requires an act of self-transcendence.

Transcribed highlights below, and be sure to see Sussman’s superb photographs, contextualized by her thoughtful essays.

On the project as a cultural reality check and a personal reminder of our place in the universe:

MP: NPR recently shared a survey that found 40% of the American public doesn’t believe the world is more than 6,000 years old. We know, of course, that scientifically speaking, Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. And yet what’s most striking is that we — all of us, globally, still use Christianity as the basis for measuring and dating time. The year 2014, for instance, is based on the story of Christ, year one being his birth in that story. But when one beholds, say, a 13,000-year-old eucalyptus tree, it’s impossible — impossible — to continue believing such mythology. When you were starting this project, did you have any sense that besides a masterwork of art, it would also be a tremendously important and powerful piece of science communication and a cultural reality-check? And how do you see the project’s role in that regard, now that the book is complete?

RS: One of the things I was aiming to do was to anthropomorphize these organisms as a way to connect and start to forge a personal connection, which really is a philosophical one, when you start to look at, for instance, the 13,000-year-old eucalyptus tree, and what does that mean. For me, this is something that has taken years to sink in — you get it, on an intellectual level, but by returning to this topic again and again … and making more connections to these organisms and understanding how they are all interconnected, that starts to create a bigger picture that’s both about deeper and broader time that belongs to all of us, but also that our individual moments matter quite a bit and are part of that chronology.

Bristlecone pine

5,068 years | White Mountains, California, US

On finding a sense of purpose, the doggedness necessary for creating meaningful work, and the importance of defining our success in terms more authentic than outside approval:

MP: I want to talk a little bit about this notion of faith — ungrounded, unevidenced faith that carried you through.

A young woman recently reached out to me and asked for some advice, and complained that she had just started working for a major publication six weeks prior. She complained that she was really frustrated that she couldn’t build an audience in those six weeks, and she was ready to throw in the towel.

You’ve been doing this for a decade — you’ve been doing it completely guided by your own inner compass, inner radar, and not having any sort of solid positive reinforcement from the outside. What carried you through it, what gave you that center that told you this was something that had a sense of purpose on the scale of your life and defined success in terms other than immediate rewards?

RS: [Laughing] I certainly wasn’t in it for the immediate rewards.

I couldn’t not do it — that is the simplest answer. I felt so compelled by that idea, and it felt important to me that I see it through.

That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t terrifying along the way… It was quite a long battle just getting to the point where I felt this is something that really is worth my time and attention, and then I had the idea and I thought, “How am I ever going to do this idea justice?” And I grappled with that for a while. And over the years it just changed and transformed, and I grew more confident the more I looked at it. But it took that time. When I started … I didn’t know what I was doing, and these things revealed themselves to me by having that continued attention to it.

It’s hard to say what the magic ingredient is, other than perseverance. And, certainly, you can’t throw in the towel after six weeks.

Llareta

3,000 years | Atacama Desert, Chile

MP: Since you started the project, you’ve been working with the Climate Reality Project as an official presenter doing public outreach. So I wonder how the ecological component of the work accelerated in urgency for you, personally, doing this?

RS: I’ve always considered myself an environmentalist, for whatever that term means, and it’s something that I think, as an artist, was an interesting thing — because for a long time, I don’t think it was particularly acceptable in the fine art world to be doing work about nature. It’s something that was sort of in a compartment somewhere off to the side…

The problem of climate change is so pressing and actually is something of a moral imperative for us all, and I think artists do a tremendous job of engaging the public on different levels [compared to hearing] some numbers about the C02 levels — it’s hard to internalize that. And I think that’s one of the beauties of being able, as a creative person, to create the parameters of what you want to talk about. The science and the climate science are a very important component of the overall project. That message certainly underpins the whole thing and has been with me and with it from the beginning.

The question has been this idea of making portraits of these organisms and thinking of them as individuals. I think one of the most important things to do when dealing with climate science and climate change is to create a personal connection, and to create some relationship. That was my way of trying to forge a relationship to these organisms.

Antarctic moss

5,500 years | Elephant Island, South Georgia

On how the project began when Sussman first photographed an ancient tree in Japan, the myth of the Eureka! moment, and how the slow accumulation of combinatorial creativity sparked this decade-long journey:

I didn’t know I was doing the project yet — I didn’t have the idea, and I didn’t have an epiphany standing in front of [that first tree] … It was actually sitting at a Thai restaurant in Soho over a year later that I got the idea — so you never know when inspiration [will strike].

But this is actually something that I think is so vital to the creative process… I didn’t know at the time, but I find it incredibly comforting now — it’s something that Steven Johnson writes about in Where Good Ideas Come From, this idea of the “the slow churn” … just following these different paths, the things that intrigue you, and allowing them to simmer in there until something fires in your brain and all of a sudden these connections happen.

I did have the a-ha! moment — but it probably was a year and a half in the making.

Dead Huon pine

10,500 years | Mount Read, Tasmania; Royal Tasmanian Botanical Garden, Hobart

On self-doubt, creative resilience and making the choice to pursue this project:

I knew I was going to make sacrifices — I don’t think I knew I was going to make as many sacrifices as I did. But that’s okay. There are moments where I felt doubt, because I think every creative person does — and if they don’t, there’s probably an issue [laughing] — but there was never a moment that I wanted to give up.

On the disconnect between exposure and financial success, an important reminder in a culture where artists are constantly asked to do work for free and be “paid” in exposure:

Just because your name is in the paper, it doesn’t mean you have money to pay your rent.

On realizing, while working as a digital producer, that paying work and fulfilling work are not always the same thing:

I had a moment while I was sitting working for some website for some brand, and I thought, “This doesn’t matter. This isn’t how I want to spend my days, this is not the way that I want to put something out into the world that is of significance.”

Brain coral

2,000 years | Speyside, Tobago

On the notion of the “audience”:

MP: Oscar Wilde famously said that to the artist, the public is “nonexistent” and Hemingway believed that writing is a solitary act which necessitates no witnessing audience until the very end. And for you, certainly, this was a very solitary project… But you wrote in Nature, in a beautiful essay:

“There are a lot of happy accidents. Both art and science can be filled with passion and frustration, setbacks and breakthroughs. But, most importantly, the work is never meant to exist in a vacuum … it is the audience that completes the picture.”

So I wonder how your sense of “the audience” evolved over the course of the project.

RS: When I first started the project, even though I knew it was meant to exist on these different levels and have different aspects, I didn’t really know how I was going to communicate that. So I think that it was just important that I be able to create a connection with these different aspects, but that it would be different for different people. So, if you’re a scientist, you may go straight for the science, and if you’re a visual artist, you might just look at the pictures. But the idea was that I wanted to intermingle all of these things, and let people bring what they will to it. So there’s not a right and a wrong way — it’s not prescriptive in that way…

It’s completed by the person taking it in, and that’s something that I realized over time as well — that I want to have all of those layers there, and I see them as a whole, but I also have an understanding that … there’s just as much value if you get one thing out of it and not the other. My hope is that it sparks some thought or conversation in the audience, and it’s not just meant to be a document filed away — it’s actually meant to engage, and I hope that it will serve as something that is a call to action, whatever that might mean for people.

Welwitschia Mirabilis

2,000 years| Namib-Naukluft Desert, Namibia

And engage it does — The Oldest Living Things in the World is a masterwork of pause-giving perspective, both cultural and personal. Sample its dimensional genius here.

All photographs © Rachel Sussman published exclusively with the artist’s permission

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